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G.C. Murphy Co.’s store on Indianapolis’ Fountain Square in the 1930s. Along with Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Indiana remained an important market for the company throughout its history. (Photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society.)

A Short History of the G.C. Murphy Company

For more than 80 years, G.C. Murphy Company connected people from all walks of life throughout the eastern and midwestern United States. In small mining towns in Appalachia, Murphy's low-priced, quality merchandise liberated residents from the tyranny of coal company-owned stores. In beach and resort towns from Delaware to Florida, Murphy's stores offered vacationers a place to find inexpensive souvenirs and staple items like cosmetics.

Before there were "fast-food" chains, Murphy's lunch counters in cities large and small united rich and poor, men and women, who needed a quick, cheap and filling "bite to eat" before returning to the office or factory.

Many middle-class Americans found shares of G.C. Murphy Company — first listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1931 under the ticker symbol “MPH”— to be a safe investment. And Murphy's provided hundreds of thousands of boys and girls with their first real job; thanks to the Murphy's executive training program, many stayed with the company for their entire careers, rising to top-level positions with the discount chains, or starting their own businesses.

More History:
‘Past of Pioneering’ (1950)
A Five & 10 Timeline, 1879-2003

Founded in 1906 in McKeesport, Pa., by George Clinton Murphy, the G.C. Murphy Co. grew to include more than 500 stores — including the big suburban "Murphy's Marts" — before its acquisition by Ames Department Stores Inc. in 1985. The G.C. Murphy variety stores, or "five-and-tens," survived a little while longer before being absorbed by longtime competitor McCrory Stores.

Dime stores revolutionized American retailing in the late 19th century. Until their creation, shoppers had to ask clerks to get merchandise for them, and often the prices "varied" depending on the store owner's whims. When Frank W. Woolworth opened his first "Great 5-Cent Store" in Utica, N.Y., in 1879, all of the items were on display where consumers could inspect and handle them prior to purchase. And as the name implied, everything in the Great 5-Cent Store was priced at just a nickel — though later, Woolworth added 10-cent items to improve the mix of merchandise he could offer.

Pennsylvania, with its mix of dense urban centers and rural country towns, proved to be a fertile place for five-and-dime stores. Woolworth found the Utica location unsuccessful, and after a few months, closed the store and opened one in Lancaster, Pa., where he found a ready market among the area's Amish farmers, businessmen and factory and railroad workers. By 1881, Woolworth had stores throughout central Pennsylvania and parts of New York.

John S. Mack Walter C. Shaw Sr.

John G. McCrory saw Woolworth's success and brought the dime-store concept to the coal-mining town of Scottdale, Pa., south of Pittsburgh, in 1882. The McCrory chain spread to several cities, including Jamestown, N.Y., where George Murphy became manager of a McCrory store in 1896. When McCrory and Sebastian S. Kresge opened a new dime store in Detroit, Mich., Murphy was tapped to manage it — only to leave the chain a short time later to open his own dime stores in Pittsburgh.

George Murphy sold his first chain of Murphy stores to F.W. Woolworth Co. in the early 1900s, then started another chain by opening a new dime store on Fifth Avenue and Sheridan Street in McKeesport, near the busy Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station and the entrance to the National Tube Co. works, then the largest pipe-making plant in the U.S.

After Murphy's death, two McCrory executives, John S. Mack and Walter C. Shaw, left that established company and purchased the fledgling G.C. Murphy Co. in 1911. They quickly turned the money-losing chain of about a dozen stores into a thriving enterprise, and soon more Murphy stores appeared, as Shaw and Mack spotted new markets or bought out smaller competitors.

By 1926, G.C. Murphy Co. had opened a New York City buying office so that its sales forces would be closer to national fashion and manufacturing companies, though until the very end, Murphy's would proudly headquartered in McKeesport. A new store in Pittsburgh's "Golden Triangle" was constructed at a cost of $250,000, and would long serve as one of Murphy's flagships, along with the large, landmark store in Washington, D.C., not far from Capitol Hill.

In the 1930s, cash-strapped Americans found that shopping at Murphy's was a good way for them to save money, and the company thrived despite the Great Depression. From 1929 until 1934, sales increased from $15.7 million to $28 million, and there were soon 181 Murphy stores in 11 states.

Washington, N.J. location in the 1950s. (Undated postcard image; photographer unknown.)

World War II material and manpower shortages prevented the company from expanding, but by 1950, Murphy's was up to full strength again. A philanthropic arm, the G.C. Murphy Co. Foundation, was formed in 1952 and survives to this day. Murphy's was the first variety store chain to use television commercials, and was an early adopter of computers to speed bookkeeping and accounting work. The number of Murphy's stores jumped with the purchase of Morris Stores in the Midwest, and Murphy's soon followed its customers to the suburbs with the opening of its first shopping-center locations — in Erie, Pa. and Brentwood, Pa., near Pittsburgh — in 1955. Murphy Co. greatly expanded its presence south of the Mason-Dixon line with the acquisition of the 112-store Morgan & Lindsey chain, and moved into the department store business with the purchase of Cobb's, Bruner's and Terry Farris stores in Texas.

In 1967, Murphy's launched what the company called its "A-A," or "double-A," program in larger store location. The "A-A" program stressed more trendy merchandise, better advertising, longer hours and sold items grouped by "themes" rather than departments. Though the "A-A" program was not as successful as the company had hoped, the experience did prove valuable as Murphy's moved into the operation of its large discount stores — "Murphy's Marts" — in 1970.

The first Mart opened in Bethel Park, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, and was an immediate success. By 1976, the nation's bicentennial and Murphy's 70th anniversary, the company operated 529 stores, many of them Marts, which featured large aisles, free parking, and improved mixes of men's and women's clothing and wearables. Many Marts also had additional services like Garden Centers or auto repair, and were usually located in shopping malls or paired with supermarkets.

Murphy's Marts were soon generating a large share of the company's profits, though the variety stores remained an important part of its business, and were continually updated to keep with the times.

While many variety store chains operated their restaurants as “loss leaders,” at G.C. Murphy Co., the food service operations were expected to stand on their own feet. These employees worked at a Murphy’s restaurant in West Virginia in 1987. (Photo courtesy Ed Kinter.)

In 1984, despite an economic downturn in many of the northeastern markets where Murphy's stores were located, G.C. Murphy Co. remained profitable and relatively debt-free, and presented an attractive target for so-called "corporate raiders." Two investors soon cornered the market on Murphy stock, which eventually jumped from $9 to $47 per share.

Attempts by Murphy's executives to keep the company independent were not successful, and Ames Department Stores Inc. of Rocky Hill, Conn., purchased the G.C. Murphy Co. in 1985 for $198 million. The Murphy's Marts were converted to Ames stores, while the variety stores were spun off into a separate Ames division, still based in McKeesport.

Freed to focus their efforts on the variety stores again, Murphy executives rose to the challenge and the old "dime stores" had a brief renaissance, though many smaller locations were closed.

The good times were not to last, unfortunately. In 1988, Ames purchased the failing Zayre Department Stores for $800 million, and a year later, in need of cash, spun off its Murphy division to the parent company of McCrory stores. The McKeesport office was closed, and about 100 remaining G.C. Murphy Co. variety stores were absorbed by McCrory, which also operated other dime stores under the names of several traditional Murphy competitors, including McClellan, H.L. Green's and TG&Y.

Saddled with debt as the result of several complicated stock transactions in the 1980s and 1990s, and overextended on credit, McCrory Corp. filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and liquidated a short time later. Only 200 locations — including a handful still operating as "G.C. Murphy" — remained. Those last "G.C. Murphy" stores were to longtime Murphy employees a pale imitation of the brightly-lit, well-stocked Murphy's stores that delighted four generations of shoppers looking for sewing notions, candy, toys, clothes, tools and pets.

Today, many Murphy's retirees remain active and in close contact, through a volunteer organization known as "SMERF" — the "Society of Murphy Employees Who Retired or Were Fired." Many Murphy employees moved onto work for other retailing chains or launched their own businesses, and former company executives and retirees maintain Murphy's tradition of supporting local charities through the G.C. Murphy Co. Foundation. The Foundation is currently working to compile a history of the G.C. Murphy Co.

Though his red-and-gold "five-and-tens" no longer anchor downtown streets from New England to Mexico, George C. Murphy would likely be pleased to know that his legacy of service to the community and to consumers is carried on by former Murphy employees across the U.S.

And successful business owners would be wise to remember G.C. Murphy Co.'s fundamentals of doing business, laid out by J.S. Mack and W.C. Shaw in the 1920s: Have what the people want, let them know you have it, and organize to serve them quickly, courteously and satisfactorily.

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